"I think… the answer's twenty-three and a third?"
Six full seconds pass before the sound of my own voice echoes in my ears. I count each one, if only to confirm that the delay isn't a figment of my subconscious.
Craning my neck, I look around, scanning the faces of my colleagues. Smiles. Sneers. Lips curled behind jagged teeth. Hungry eyes assault me from every angle, and I know it's only a matter of time.
Eight. Nine. Ten.
With clockwork precision, it begins.
The whispers come first, as they always do. It's their way of deceiving me, pretending they haven't heard. But both they and I know what's to follow.
From the rear, a stifled snicker emerges. Then, a soft chuckle from the right. And, with that, the signal is given.
Laughter bursts forth from the class like magma, searing and viscous. Gnarled fingers arch towards my direction, swaying as chests heave with fervent glee. Callous gazes penetrate me between bouts of ardent tears.
As the timer reaches fourteen, the cacophony of torment reaches its maximum, and for a moment my hands instinctively swing upward to shield my head. Then, slowly but surely, the howling disperses, their own echoes finally settling amongst the floorboards.
"Sorry, but I'm afraid the correct answer is n minus eight," says Mister B. "It's okay; you'll get it next time."
The math teacher's response is always the same: You'll get it next time. It's not a consolation, but a dismissal. Wishful thinking at best. Besides, it's not the first question I've gotten wrong, and it most certainly won't be the last. Even as my aggressors recede, the air is still thick with rancorous fog, and it takes all my strength to stop myself from suffocating.
I shrink back into my seat and curse myself for ever taking the chance.
After class, B approaches me, as he's done several times before.
"Are you all right?" he inquires, taking the seat to my left. I take a moment to recover before responding.
"Yes," I lie.
"I know learning these topics is harder for you than for most," he asserts. "But, just because you don't get as many questions right as your peers, it doesn't mean you're any less talented than them." It's an excuse I've heard countless times before, and it means even less coming from someone like him, who pretends to care.
"The important thing is not to let them get to you."
I watch his mouth contort as he speaks. Though its shape is comparatively civil, I sense a slight smirk buried deep within its grooves, waiting for me to look away so it can break free.
"Thank you." With a dismissing nod, I leave, ears still ringing.
The bus ride home is mercifully quiet. Even here, though, I sense somewhere bitter voices reined behind eager lips. Are they biding time? Saving their breath for a mounted assault? Perhaps it's simply a taunt, or a warning. I'll never know for sure. They know it makes no difference.
As I step out into the afternoon stillness, a cool reprieve washes over me. For a moment, I let my lungs fill with the elixir of silence, savoring each sweet breath as though it is my last.
Indeed, as I enter my front door, it takes only twelve seconds for the floorboards to erupt in rapture.
"Your report card came in."
I know what's coming. I hang my backpack on the back of my chair and sit, legs crossed.
"It was math again, I know," I utter. "I told you, I've been studying as much as I can."
"What good is studying if you never learn a thing from it?" The fist slams on the table, sending out a ripple of splinters. "How do you think it feels, having to hear that your child was the only one who answered a question wrong?"
I bend down, trying my best to shield my ears. The laughing hurts, but it's always the upbraiding that burns more.
"Do you know what they'll think of us? What they'll say about us?"
Tears form in my eyes, despite my best efforts to will them away.
"We'll be a laughing stock."
I pry myself away from the table and race the echoing shrills to my room. Even though I track every footstep, it's becoming harder to tell who gets there first.
On the ride to school, I'm greeted by the familiar chorus of giggles and grins. As I walk home from the drop-off, I feel the scornful gaze of drivers from their cars and pedestrians on the other side of the road. The laughing isn't always audible, but I can see it in how their cheeks stretch taut, how their eyelids skew like lips, how their fleshy tongues roll inside their mouths. I feel every bird cackle and every insect scream. Even the trees taunt me amidst their harsh whispers.
I cover my ears for the long walk to the classroom and shrink down into my seat, avoiding Mr. B's gaze as I brace for the inevitable.
Thirty-one. Thirty-two. I count each minute as it creeps by, allowing every deafening clock tick to drown out the dreaded question. Somehow, it never comes.
Before I know it, class is over. There are no chuckles, no snickers or sneers. I'm left alone in the room with Mr. B.
He approaches my desk. "I didn't want to put too much pressure on you today." I scour his visage for signs of malice. The tears make it too blurry to tell. "I tried to make today's lesson a little easier, if that helped."
Is he trying to catch me off guard? Is he merely hiding it well? I don't know. I silently nod, turning to stare at the warped wood of my desk.
He sighs. "I talked to your parents this morning."
"Now, I try not to judge, but they sound like they've been pretty hard on you." Something's not right. That telltale trace of insincerity isn't there.
"Hey." He folds his arms. "If you ever need someone to talk to, I'm here."
Is… is this real? I've been dealing with endless acerbity for so long that I start to wonder what true silence sounds like.
I look up. As my eyes dry, his face comes into focus.
"We can make this work out."
A smile. A vast, twisted sneer that speaks loud enough for the both of us.
My hand grabs my pencil and brings it up with one swift motion. I let its weight guide my arm into a perfect, unbroken arc. As the instrument sinks through the side of his neck, time begins to move once more.
His eyes widen. I extricate the blade, but my arm swings like a pendulum. I follow through.
Two. The motion comes as naturally as a heartbeat. I let the momentum take over.
Three. Four. Five.
Through bleary eyes, I watch as Mr. B collapses to the ground. There's a deep, resonant gurgle as flesh gives way to ephemeral swill. But I can't rest, because as I take one last look at his face, a single, horrible image burns itself into my mind: That smile, that awful smile, still stretched wide and white and laughing, laughing, laughing.
And, once more, I'm left with a question to which I'll never know the answer:
When will it stop?